A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen


There has been solemn discussion of the effect of this philosophical disputation at Yale, and of his own dissertation on Kant, on Veblen’s later writing. My instinct is to think it was remarkably slight. This is affirmed in a general way by the other Veblens. In later years his brother Andrew (a physicist and mathematician) responded repeatedly and stubbornly to efforts to identify the sources of Thorstein Veblen’s thought. He did not think anyone could be singled out: “I do not believe that anyone much influenced the formation of his views or opinions.” It must be sufficient that after two and a half years at Yale—underwritten by a brother and the Minnesota family and farm—Veblen emerged with a Ph.D. He wanted to teach; he had also, on the whole, rather favorable recommendations. But he could not find a job, and so he went back to the Minnesota homestead. There, endlessly reading and doing occasional writing, he remained for seven years. He professed ill health for a part of this time; Andrew Veblen, later letters show, thought the illness genuine; other members of his family diagnosed his ailment as partly an allergy to manual toil. He married, and Ellen brought with her a little money. From time to time he was asked to apply for teaching positions; tentative offers were righteously withdrawn when it was discovered that he was not a subscribing Christian. In 1891 he resumed his academic wandering: he became a graduate student at Cornell.

The senior professor of economics at Cornell at the time was J. Laurence Laughlin, a stalwart exponent of the English classical school who, until then, had declined to become a member of the American Economic Association in the belief that it was socialistically inclined. Joseph Dorfman of Columbia University, the eminent student of American economic thought and the pre-eminent authority on Veblen, tells Laughlin’s story of his meeting with Veblen in his massive and important Thorstem Veblen and His America (Viking, 1934), a book to which everyone who speaks or writes on Veblen is indebted. Laughlin “was sitting in his study in Ithaca when an anemic-looking person, wearing a coonskin cap and corduroy trousers, entered and in the mildest possible tone announced: ‘I am Thorstein Veblen.’ He told Laughlin of his academic history, his enforced idleness and his desire to go on with his studies. The fellowships had all been filled, but Laughlin was so impressed with the quality of the man that he went to the president and other powers of the university and secured a special grant.”

Apart from the impression of Veblen’s manner and dress so conveyed, the account is important for another reason. Always in Veblen’s life there were individuals—a minute but vital few—who sensed and were captured by his genius. Often, as in the case of Laughlin, they were conservatives—men who in ideas and habits were a world apart from Veblen. And repeatedly these men rescued their prodigious and highly inconvenient friend.

Veblen was at Cornell rather less than two years—although long enough to begin advancing his career with uncharacteristic orthodoxy by getting articles into the scholarly journals. Then Laughlin was invited to be head of the department of economics at the new University of Chicago. He took Veblen with him; Veblen was awarded a fellowship of $520 a year, for which he was to prepare a course on the history of socialism and assist in editing the newly founded Journal of Political Economy. He was now thirty-five years old. In the next several years he advanced to the rank of tutor and instructor, continued to teach and to edit the Journal, wrote a great many reviews and numerous articles—among others, pieces on the theory of women’s dress, on the barbarian status of women, and on the instinct of workmanship and the irksomeness of labor—all work that foreshadowed later books. In these years he also developed his teaching style, if such it could be called. He sat at a table and spoke in a low monotone to the handful of students who were interested and could get close enough to hear. He also discovered, if he had not previously learned, that something—mind, manner, dress, his sardonic and challenging indifference to approval or disapproval—made him extremely attractive to women. His wife found that she had more and more competition for his attention. This competition was something to which neither she nor the academic communities in which Veblen resided ever reconciled themselves. In 1899, while still at Chicago and while Laughlin was still having trouble getting him small increases in pay or even, on occasion, getting his appointment renewed, he published his first and greatest book. It was The Theory of the Leisure Class.

There is little that anyone can be told about The Theory of the Leisure Class that he cannot learn better by reading the book himself. It is a marvelous book; it is also, in its particular way, a masterpiece of English prose. But the qualification is important. Veblen’s writing cannot be read like that of any other author. Wesley C. Mitchell—regarded, though not with entire accuracy, as Veblen’s leading intellectual legatee—once said that “one must be highly sophisticated to enjoy his [Veblen’s] books.” All who cherish Veblen would wish to believe this. The truth is simpler than that. One needs only to realize that if Veblen is to be enjoyed, he must be read very carefully and slowly. He enlightens, amuses, and delights but only if he is given a good deal of time.